The Heart Sutra, or, as it’s more precisely called, the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, is a beloved Mahayana Buddhist text that exists in many translations. The title promises us a teaching of the main point, the heart of the wisdom teachings, the heart of Buddhist wisdom itself. Further, this teaching is given by Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion, love, and the teachings of a wise heart. Perhaps you’ve been moved by the image of Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva shown over the last few centuries with many tools of service in his or her hands. A shovel, a rake, and maybe a cell phone are all various examples of things that a bodhisattva might use to serve others for the well-being of us all.

This spokesperson of compassion offers a way for us to understand and become intimate with the deep wisdom teachings that can relieve our suffering and pain. What is it that Avalokiteshvara says to us? The first line reads: 

Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva, doing deep prajnaparamita,
clearly saw the emptiness of all the five conditions, 
thus completely relieving misfortune and pain. 

So what is this prajnaparamita that we’re encouraged to do? It’s simply to stop and see the wisdom (prajna) of a fresh perspective and the other side of things (paramita). Consider how often we get stuck on one side of our perceptions and neglect to listen or see the other side. When we translate prajna as wisdom, it can lead us down a fairly faulty path, because it’s not your ordinary smarts. Prajna is composed of two elements: pra meaning “before” and jna meaning “knowing.” So prajna can be understood as before-knowing. So there’s this time element of not jumping to a conclusion but rather allowing ourselves the space of before knowing, where we wait and listen to our whole body as we take in information. This is called doing prajnaparamita—directly experiencing reality through the lens of the wisdom teachings. It’s a turn toward a fresh, living moment instead of distancing subject and object. Understanding this distinction is the key to the Heart Sutra. This quality of before-knowing, before having an idea, before forming an opinion, what is that like? 

Just stop for a moment and breathe. Breathe without knowing anything. You might find that it’s not so easy to drop the mind that knows, but it can free us and reveal to us far deeper truths than those we thought possible. That before-knowing, that prajna, is so different from what we commonly think of as knowledge or judgment. But rather this prajna wisdom is the way of being before knowing. It is creative and unvarnished. It doesn’t have the overlays of our opinions, of our past, of what we heard yesterday. It is before we create a story or an idea of how things are or how we are. It’s a freshness. It is before the word war or tyranny or global warming. It is before bigot and racist—and “them” or “us.” It is before my idea of myself and my failures and my triumphs. Before all of this, before knowing, prajna.

We call it wisdom, but it is the fount of creativity. It is the whole source of life, new ways for the mind and heart to be free, to be spontaneous, to be effective. And this prajna can only exist in a mind that is willing to free itself. A mind that is free of old paths and structures, highways of thoughts, free of conventional narratives, and alive to the world as it’s changing right now. I think of prajna as the doorway to my freedom and that of others. It is the path to relieve suffering. 

We can’t relieve suffering if we lack trust. We have to trust ourselves. We have to trust this moment without all the crutches of what I thought yesterday, what someone told me. In order to be alive and creative, there has to be trust in this moment, this apprehension of reality. So I call prajna trust in all of life. It opens the heart, if we can let it in, and thus we are free. 

Excerpted from Roshi Enkyo Pat O’Hara’s Dharma Talk video “The Heart of Wisdom.” Watch the full video here.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .